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The exact geographic spread of the ancient Celts is also disputed; in particular, the ways in which the Iron Age inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland should be regarded as Celts has become a subject of controversy.The history of pre-Celtic Europe remains very uncertain.

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The English form Gaul (first recorded in the 17th century) and Gaulish come from the French Gaule and Gaulois, a borrowing from Frankish *Walholant, "Land of foreigners or Romans" (see Gaul: Name), the root of which is Proto-Germanic *walha-, "foreigner, Roman, Celt", whence the English word Welsh (Old English wælisċ This means that English Gaul, despite its superficial similarity, is not actually derived from Latin Gallia (which should have produced **Jaille in French), though it does refer to the same ancient region.By the time speakers of Celtic languages entered history around 400 BC, they were already split into several language groups, and spread over much of Western continental Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland and Britain.Some scholars think that the Urnfield culture of western Middle Europe represents an origin for the Celts as a distinct cultural branch of the Indo-European family.The Celts of Brittany derive their language from migrating insular Celts, mainly from Wales and Cornwall, and so are grouped accordingly.The Celtic languages form a branch of the larger Indo-European family.800–450 BC), named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria.

Thus this area is sometimes called the "Celtic homeland". 450 BC up to the Roman conquest), this Celtic culture was supposed to have expanded by trans-cultural diffusion or migration to the British Isles (Insular Celts), France and the Low Countries (Gauls), Bohemia, Poland and much of Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula (Celtiberians, Celtici, Lusitanians and Gallaeci) and northern Italy (Golasecca culture and Cisalpine Gauls) Continental Celtic languages are attested almost exclusively through inscriptions and place-names.

Its root may be the Proto-Celtic *galno, meaning "power, strength", hence Old Irish gal "boldness, ferocity" and Welsh gallu "to be able, power".

The tribal names of Gallaeci and the Greek Γαλάται (Galatai, Latinized Galatae; see the region Galatia in Anatolia) most probably have the same origin.

Insular Celtic languages are attested beginning around the 4th century in Ogham inscriptions, although it was clearly being spoken much earlier.

Celtic literary tradition begins with Old Irish texts around the 8th century.

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, the Celtic-speaking communities in these Atlantic regions emerged as a reasonably cohesive cultural entity.